The Portrait/Portret (1915ó fragmentary print) [unratable]
Unsurprisingly, not very many Russian movies have survived from before the October Revolution. For one thing, relatively few such films were made in the first place; the earliest known narrative motion picture from Russia, Aleksandr Drankovís biopic, Stenka Razin, wasnít made until 1908, so weíre really talking about only a decadeís worth of development before the Bolsheviks plunged the industry into chaos along with everything else in the country. Then we have to consider the poor survival rate of silent movies generally, what with the chemical instability of nitrate film stock, business models that effectively discouraged preservation, and the sheer perceived obsolescence of the technology from the 1930ís on. And of course revolution, foreign occupation, civil war, famine, and persistent political turmoil donít exactly add up to an ideal environment for cultural conservation, even without factoring in Lenin and his successorsí enthusiasm for destroying art that didnít agree with them. Frankly, itís amazing thereís anything left at all from those days, so Iím not going to complain too much that the handful of Czarist-era fantasy movies that came my way recently are, with a single exception, in extremely fragmentary condition. The Portrait is the oldest and most severely truncated of three silent rarities included as extras on the Russian Cinema Councilís DVD of Viy, and like the main feature on the disc, it was based on a story by Nikolai Gogol. The Portrait was originally a three-reeler of 1200 metersí length; depending on projection speed, it probably ran about 40 to 45 minutes in its intended form. Of that, just under eight minutes appear on the Ruscico disc. Remarkably, even that tattered scrap tells a more or less coherent story, feeling complete enough in itself that someone unfamiliar with the movieís history, or with the story from which it derives, might never suspect how little of the film it represents.
What we have here is but the very beginning of the tale. A struggling artist (A. Oromov), called Chartkov by Gogol but unidentified in what remains of the movie, stops in at a cluttered shop that deals in pictures. Most of the shopís stock is the kind of banal crap youíd expect to see decorating the rooms in a two-star hotel, and Chartkov shouldnít be spending money on frivolities anyway, but the very persistent proprietor badgers him into having a look at the merchandise. After some hunting, Chartkov uncovers a crude but striking portrait of a dour old man. What really gets him about the painting is the handling of the subjectís eyes. The rest of the work is in such a sketchy state that it might not even have been completed, but the eyes are arrestingly lifelike, and seem to gaze directly at the viewer no matter where one stands relative to the canvas. After some more pressing from the shopkeeper, the artist hands over a small sum and takes the portrait home, probably just to study it and see how the eye effect was obtained. However, once Chartkov has the portrait scrubbed clean of dust and grime and hung up on the wall of the single room that serves as both his studio and his living quarters, he finds the illusion of the old manís penetrating stare intolerably creepy. He makes sure to cover it up with a drop cloth before going to bed that night.
Not that covering up the painting helps him any, mind you. All night long, Chartkov is troubled by nightmares involving the new addition to his dťcor. He dreams not merely that the painting comes alive, but indeed that the old man (V. Vassiliev) climbs down out of the canvas to investigate the little apartment. In the last such dream, the old man does more than reconnoiter, too. Itís difficult to catch whatís going on without prior knowledge of the story, but those cylinders the man pulls out of the sack he carries with him are supposed to be rolls of gold coins, each containing 1000 ducats. When the phantom from the painting drops one, and it rolls across the uneven floor to Chartkovís bed, the artist quietly snatches it up. That much gold would solve all his financial difficulties for years to come! The trouble is, the man from the painting is counting his loot. Surely heís going to notice that heís short 1000 ducats, right? Chartkov snaps awake just as his theft is about to be discoveredó and however vivid and real his nightmare might have seemed, thereís no sign of any money from Beyond in the harsh light of morning.
Thatís all there is to this print of The Portrait, but Gogol continued the story by having Chartkov fortuitously discover a roll of coins just like those of his dream hidden within the pictureís frame. In the usual manner of such things in fantastic fiction, that windfall proved to be a curse in disguise, for it gave the artist a taste for high living that his normal resources couldnít sustain. In order to make up the difference, Chartkov abandoned the practice of pure art, and turned his efforts toward the more lucrative field of commissioned portraiture instead. Eventually, he so squandered his talents in the service of other peopleís vanity that he lost the ability to paint anything of actual merit. Recognition of what he inadvertently sacrificed set in decades later, but Chartkovís efforts to get his work back on track yielded such abysmal failure that he was driven literally mad with frustration. An epilogue revolving around a completely different set of characters then went back to revealó or at least to hint ató the source of the paintingís evil power.
Presumably, The Portrait originally presented some version of the foregoing as well, but Iím in no position to say any more about that. What I can tell you is that these first few minutes make for a simple but effective spook story all by themselves, quite enjoyable without reference to the longer and more elaborate narrative they were designed to set up. The flavor of the fragment is less Nikolai Gogol than M. R. James, howeveró although thatís fine with me, since I quite like M. R. James, and the movie industry hasnít made nearly as much use of him as it should have. Iíve long been an aficionado of horror tales about objects that are secretly less inanimate than theyíre supposed to be, and the Jamesian approach of making such objects inexplicably and mindlessly malevolent is perhaps my favorite. Obviously the portrait is up to no good from the moment Chartkovís scrubbing transforms it from a real canvas into a matted-in shot of a heavily made-up Vassiliev sitting uncannily still against a featureless backdrop. The paintingís motives are left unexplained and inscrutable, though, which to my mind makes it even more horrid. Take the coin-counting dream, for example. When the man from the painting sits down within armís reach of Chartkov, but in a position from which he canít see the artist behind the privacy screen that encircles the latterís bed, the natural assumption is that Chartkov will do something to draw the phantomís attention and precipitate some kind of attack. Itís somehow twice as disturbing that the painted man instead sets about doing something as innocuous as counting his money. The behavior is so specific that it has to mean something, but the meaning is shrouded in mystery, and remains so because of the abrupt ending. The overall effect recalls that of a 19th-century trick film, but is more focused and cohesive. The impossible vision of the painting coming alive is the main attraction, but the opening scene in the art-dealerís store grounds the scenario in mundane reality. Chartkovís reactions to the apparition, meanwhile, cue us to take the intrusion of the supernatural much more seriously than we would the whimsical deviltry of a Georges Melies short. It also helps that Vassilievís performance as the phantom is so genuinely eerie. Itís bad enough when heís moving in that slow, stylized way, leaning out of the picture frame or skulking around in the background while Oromov cowers in bed. But the real heebie-jeebies come when heís just sitting in his frame on the wall, motionless as a predatory reptile waiting for some tasty little rodent to scamper byó motionless, that is, except for his roving, staring eyes.